The Cursed Ruins of the Past – How Deconstructing Steampunk Enhances Immersion

 

Steampunk is a weird concept I adore oh so much. It’s a genre that uses a combination of both fantasy, science fiction and a power source invented in the 17th century. Basically it wants to live both in the future by presenting us many nifty little inventions while living in the past, as in these universes nobody ever thought that coal would catch on. The usage, even deconstruction of the genre is one of the reasons I was attracted to Age of Decadence, a game taking place in a post-apocalyptic setting following a civilization that lives in the shadow of a fallen steampunk Rome. This results in the game exploring something I find so fascinating I could cry tears of joy: presenting steampunk technology as something magical and religious.

But what IS the glow? Maybe magic, maybe mundane!

One of the power modules with the strange orange glow (considered magical by those helpful salesmen) that fuels plenty of scientifically awesome artifacts.

A wise man once said that science fiction and fantasy are basically the same thing in a different setting. Whether it’s magic or technology, the point is that you get powers that break past the limit break and unlock the potential dormant inside. Age of Decadence demonstrates this perfectly. The setting of the game ostensibly seems to be that you live in a magical post-apocalyptic crapsack society, living in the shadow of the glorious empire that was all kittens, rainbow and non-desert sunshine. In actuality it was a naughty expansionist society that relied on that sweet science. Any loremaster worth his salt will discover Indiana Jones-wise that many of those spooky magical things that people brown their pants for are actually scientific in nature, with machines, power sources, surgery and some good ol’ orange ominous glow for good measure.

So why then does this game reek of a smelly medieval society? Because the civilization you live in has known a technological regression. After Agathoth knows how long the steampunk Roman empire (god I love writing that) went too far in their attempts to contain an eldritch abomination and got a fun little war on their hands as a “thank you very much” from these lovely creatures. While the noble empire won the war of attrition it was all but destroyed by the end of it. All of the higher ups dead, almost nobody with the foresight to write down manuals on how to operate all this heavy machinery. Add x amount of generations into the mix, let everything decay nicely, stir while adding a healthy dose of fear and you get a society that longs for the good ol’ days while having no idea how said days actually worked. Those useful spare parts to all the machines sold as nothing more than antique souvenirs.

In the Shadow of Giants

Is that a red beard or a blood beard?!

The bartender in Theron, the first of many people in this game to tell you the world is dying and it won’t get better any time soon. Is this how the people living in the aftermath of the Fall of Rome felt?

And THIS is what’s so fascinating about this game. The atmosphere that this game presents is reminiscent of how Europe must have felt standing in the shadows of Aristotles, Plato and other (ironically Greek) philosophers after the real-life Roman Empire collapsed due to the assault of the Barbarians. It’s basically the same story, but the developers went out of their way to show (not tell) how the citizens, the actual people living in the dirt, must have experienced this transition in history. Constantly being reminded by the higher class and even its religion of what the good ol’ days must have felt like. And you, as a character, can decide how to deal with this lost identity, this thinking that you live in a world that is dying around you. You can decide how to rebuild this society; whether it’s through supporting one of many warlords, following the money or maybe something else entirely.

This is helped by the fact that you also have to deal with the medieval mindset that these characters have. They’re all scared shitless of magic. Many of the commoners have not enjoyed a fine education like us modern folk, working on the fields as they are expected to do, so of course this society is full of uncultured idiots exploring the ruins for some easy money, only to activate some trap that kills half their crew. Throughout the story people will keep warning you to be careful or to even ignore these places altogether, which is probably a good idea if you didn’t put a lot of points in the “Lore” skill.

Down the Hole and Into the Deep

And yet the game expects and encourages you to explore said accursed ruins. The developers were careful to not tell you what exactly happened to this world, as to why everyone gets to work on their tan in the desert-filled lands. You have to figure that out for yourself and the best way to do that is to go to all the places on the map and fend off raiders, zealots and Agathoth knows what else to get that sliver of information that provides a detail as to what those steampunk Romans were up to.

All this culminates in a story in which the setting itself and the very basic elements of the steampunk genre, the silly little gadgets and technology that looks so sinisterly alien, are used to enhance the immersion while playing this game. In a game where you’re meant to explore the secrets of the past you are presented with machinery that, to the current generation of people, look like demonic monstrosities. All this because they have no idea what those machines are there for in the first place, that knowledge long gone. Only the few loremasters, the intellectuals, have an inkling what they’re for and are thus the only ones to actually operate them without skewering themselves and others. A key gameplay and writing mechanic meant to entice the player to explore and learn just what went wrong in the past.

And better yet: this is also what happened in medieval society. When Rome fell much of the knowledge of the ancient philosophers disappeared. Their texts were often written in Greek and were shipped off to Byzantium with the remainder of the Roman court. An example of such knowledge lost were the works of Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher taught in every philosophy curriculum today! It’s only because Arab scholars decided to translate and spread those works to scholars in West-Europe via conquered Spain that much understanding of the Roman and Greek past flowed back into this part of the world, which was a key factor into the development of theology, with key figures like Thomas Aquinas integrating old ideas in their new religious philosophy.

And for a nerd of history like myself, this is an incredibly satisfying and immersive experience. 😀

Now, this is a pretty short game all things considered, but that works to its advantage. Everything in this game is connected with one another. The plot is connected to the gameplay, which is connected to the visuals, the music,… There is zero fat on this game and it’s really worth picking up. I’m not getting sponsored for saying this, so you know it must be good if I go out of my way to advice it.

PS: This isn’t your average war game. Don’t go into this game thinking you can kill five to ten men with ease because you’ll get slaughtered quicker than you can call for your mommy.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the video game. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. Age of Decadence belongs to Microsoft Windows and Iron Tower Studio.

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